Anet, the Managing Director of an award-winning NGO in the Health Sector, specialising in HIV and AIDS education and treatment in rural South Africa, contacted Aephoria to  assist with staff and organisational development. After running for more than 10 years and rolling the project out to more than 25 000 people annually, it was time to get employees involved in the organisational strategy and development process.

Understanding the nature of the problem

The presenting issue brought to Aephoria related to the changes in the NGO funding landscape over the past five years, with donor funding drying up and the need to set up social enterprises that are self-sustaining. As the presenting issue was explored it became clear that the organisation had already made significant changes and was starting to support the financial needs of the organisation differently. These changes had however created confusion with different stakeholders as to the overall purpose of the organisation and the relative priorities between projects from a capability perspective. The organisation was also heavily reliant on the founder MD for both strategic direction and fundraising, even though the organisation had grown to more than 70 fulltime staff members.

Establishing and adapting the organisation

To support the maturation of the organisation, a series of interventions were structured involving stakeholders at staff, management and Board level. The aim of these interventions were to:

  • Get all the people aligned behind a new purpose and a clear strategic view of the organisation and its sustainability going forward
  • Capacitate staff and board to participate in strategy and other important fundraising initiatives
  • Improve the involvement of key people in strategic decision making
  • Ensure the continued sustainability and success of the organisation.

Interventions ranged from stakeholder interviews, to strategy workshops, to small-group coaching and development initiatives, to changes to the organisation design. All these interventions started from the premise that future alignment was dependent on clarifying the shared purpose of the organisation and to from there get clear on what the organisation needs to be insanely great at.

Involving staff in strategy

One of the interventions involved getting supervisory and management staff involved in strategy and fundraising activities. Given that most employees of the organisation have been nurtured from within and have not had any exposure to strategic work, the MD was committed to yet anxious about the way forward. Through participative exercises, the use of liberating structures ( and small group work, team members participated in the review of the organisation’s purpose and participated in scenario-based strategic decision making that explored scenarios relating to stability of funding and the socio-political context within which the organisation delivers its services.
This allowed the organisation to move beyond a strategic view stemming from minor updates to targets and numbers in a static funder-driven document, to a dynamic strategy within scenarios that were proudly co-developed and shared by all in the leadership team. The strategic priorities were set for the year ahead within a view of these scenarios and people were willing to take responsibility for activities outside of their previous range of comfort. A coherent plan to support, upskill and hold individuals accountable to their promises was put in place.

Holding leaders accountable

This project encountered two of the biggest stumbling blocks when maturing a leadership team and organisation in the non-profit sector. Firstly, the founding member of the project often struggles to let go and allow the organisation to mature beyond their direct control. This required ongoing coaching support for the MD and deliberate work with the leader to manage the anxiety that comes with allowing the “baby” to grow into independence. Secondly, individuals are keen to get involved and grow their skills but are held back by humble beginnings, a lack of competence and various forms of internalised dependence. It was therefore necessary to set up learning circles that allowed individuals to systematically build their involvement and confidence in areas such as identifying opportunities to partner, promoting the projects, securing funding and doing PR work. The structure of the organisation development intervention also allowed for accountability check-ins and problem-solving sessions with project leads on a weekly and later monthly basis to ensure that the momentum on involvement did not get lost.

Continued organisational evolution

The organisation continues to evolve. We continue to support the leader in a coaching capacity to support her during critical inflection points. The identification of critical skills that informs Board Member selection is one such area of support. Aephoria has also supported shifts in the organisational design, working from process mapping to realignment of roles and responsibilities, to shifts in the weekly and daily operating cycles.